Dear Dr. Debbie,
What are some ways I can help my almost three-year-old to calm down when he’s upset?
It doesn’t happen daily, but at least several times a week. The worst is when we’re out in public. So embarrassing!
Take a Chill Pill
The best tactic for a parent to take with an upset child is to prevent the upset in the first place. A child at this age can dissolve into tears quickly if he’s frustrated. Emotional control is developing through early childhood with significant gains each year. By age five, a meltdown should be a rarity. (You can expect a relapse of strong emotions in the teen years!) So try to prevent his frustrations by keeping close tabs on his needs and interests.
Playtime with another child can prove to be frustrating because this is the age of “parallel play” in which the most attractive toy in the room is the one attached to another child. Your son sees in the other child an example of what he himself could be doing. Avoid these conflicts by having duplicate items available or by engaging the children in “no toy needed” activities, such as dancing, cloud watching, and singing. Fortunately conflict negotiation can be learned as an adult provides words and appropriate solutions such as: turn taking, dividing (a box of cars or a bin of blocks), trading (for an equally attractive toy), or using the prized toy together. With consistent assistance from you over the next year or so, he will learn to use these strategies himself.
Inborn traits are responsible for certain upsets. Some children are overstimulated by too much social interaction. Others get stressed out by noisy environments or open space. If your son has the trait of “high energy,” an outing with a too-long car ride could set him off. If he has a sensitive palate, he may get upset when the foods he is used to aren’t available. A “strong-willed” child has vivid expectations about things, for example how his block tower should take shape. He is likely to react dramatically if gravity, or another child, or your declaration that playtime is over, should interrupt the successful completion of his plan.
Most young children are dependent on a predictable schedule that accounts for their needs for food, rest, and exercise. When you plan an outing, be sure it wraps around his best timetable. Remember that his needs will change over time, such that a mid-morning snack or afternoon nap may not be as urgent as it is now. You might soon get away one more errand with some handy nibbles in the car, rather than a full stop for a picnic. Conversely, a growth spurt, or head cold, or other momentary changes can have an effect on his daily needs for food (and drink), rest, and exercise. Pay attention to meeting his physical needs before his tank for tolerance runs empty.
Try to notice when your son’s emotions are rising. Take some obvious guesses about the cause. “Your balloon got away!” “The library is about to close.” “You don’t like that dog.” Address his grief, anger, or fear with compassionate words and a hug. Talk about what is happening and how he is feeling about it. Although he isn’t good at believing that future events will actually happen (another balloon, another visit to the library, being away from the fearsome dog), your confident tone of voice can be reassuring. If you continue to talk rationally yet empathetically, his trust in you will help him to get his emotions back in control. Segue to a topic that you know he will react to more positively.
Because his thoughts are mainly in the present, he needs your help to switch gears smoothly from one activity to another, or one setting to another. Bridge a transition with some advance preparation. Talk about what he will be doing/ where he will be going / whom he will be with. Engage in conversation with your child about the upcoming change to be sure he is starting to connect to it in his mind. For example, he could make a choice about what kind of sandwich you will make for him when the two of you get home. Or he can plan what he wants to tell Daddy about the outing that is ending soon. Or you can create a ritual of singing a particular song (or popping in a particular music CD) for the drive to one place or another. Music is a great attention grabber.
Safeguard your son’s stress level, and yours, by recognizing patterns of when he has been upset and why. A meltdown can be a clue to what’s important to your child.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.